Laboring under the Nazis German High Court to Address Ghetto Pensions

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Christoph Schult, May 9, 2012. (Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein).

For years, former laborers in Nazi-era ghettos have been fighting to get the pension that German law ostensibly guarantees them. A strict interpretation of that legislation, however, has meant that a vast majority of applications have been rejected. Now, a complaint has been filed with Germany’s highest court.  

Elijahu Zicher was just nine years old when he started his first job. The Nazis had marched into Poland, killing his mother and older sister and forcing the rest of the family into the ghetto in the city of Wlodowa in eastern Poland, where the young Jewish boy found work in the ghetto’s sewers. Relative to the overall situation, conditions were fairly good. Zicher wasn’t kept under guard as he worked, and even received modest pay.

Tens of thousands of Jews living in ghettos under the Nazi regime had similar experiences, working more or less normal jobs. Some of these ghettos had their own employment centers, and some of the German employers even paid into retirement funds. Survivors such as Zicher don’t fall under the category of forced laborers, so an additional law passed in 2002 by the German parliament, or Bundestag, granted them the right to draw a German pension.

On paper at least. In practice, things have looked a bit different. Since 2002, around 70,000 survivors have invoked this law, known as “German Pensions for Work in Ghettos,” or by its German acronym ZRBG, but over 90 percent of these applications were initially rejected, with German authorities opting for an exceedingly strict interpretation of the law … //

… Appealing to the High Court:

This conflicted with Angela Merkel’s promise to reduce pension fund premiums, so the Labor Ministry wanted the additional costs funded by taxes. But this too came to nothing.

For most of the applicants who had previously been turned down, the Federal Social Court’s ruling seemed like good news at first, and they resubmitted their applications. This time around, Elijahu Zicher in Israel was granted a pension, but one that is retroactively for only four years, not back to 1997 as the law on ghetto workers’ pensions stipulates. Here, the German pension fund had invoked a passage in German social law stating that remuneration for an erroneous ruling is only paid retroactively for a maximum of four years, and the Federal Social Court ruled in the pension fund’s favor this February.

Zicher’s lawyer in Berlin, Simona Reppenhagen, has now filed an appeal with Germany’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest legal body, and she selected a highly symbolic date on which to do so: May 8, the anniversary of the end of Nazi rule in Germany. Reppenhagen wants her appeal to increase pressure on the German government to finally find a solution.

But Berlin is resisting. An opposition proposal to change the law on ghetto workers’ pensions has met with little support from the current government. Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a politician often highly involved in other social issues, hasn’t shown interest in reaching a mutually satisfactory conclusion to what is likely the last chapter of Germany’s reparation.

The Labor Ministry’s rationale is that there has not yet been a conclusive ruling on the legal case with the former ghetto workers – so there’s no reason yet to take any action. (full text).

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